Locklin on science

Putin’s nuclear torpedo and Project Pluto

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on December 31, 2015

There was some wanking among the US  foreign policy wonkosphere about the  nuclear torpedo “accidentally” mentioned in a Russian news video.


The device described in the leak is a  megaton class long range nuclear torpedo. The idea is, if you build a big enough bomb and blow it off in coastal waters, it will create a 1000 foot high nuclear tidal wave that will physically wipe out coastal cities and Naval installations, as well as pollute them with radioactive fallout. If the Rooskies are working on such a thing, rather than trolling the twittering pustules in our foreign policy “elite,” it is certainly nothing new. Such a device was considered in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and the original November class submarine design (the first non-US built nuclear sub) was designed around it. It was called the T-15 “land attack” torpedo.  Oddly this idea originated from America’s favorite Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov when thinking about delivery systems for his 100 megaton class devices. People forget that young Sakharov was kind of a dick. Mind you, the Soviet Navy sunk this idea, in part because it only had a range of 25 miles (meaning it was basically a suicide mission), but also, according to Sakharov’s autobiography, some grizzled old Admiral put it “we are Navy; we don’t make war on civilian populations…”

Notice the big hole in the front: that's where the torpedo went

Notice the big hole in the front: that’s where the original doomsday torpedo went

The gizmo shown in this recent Russian leak is  a modern incarnation of the T-15 land attack torpedo without the Project 627/November class submarine delivery system. Same 1.6 meter caliber, megaton class warhead and everything. The longer range  of 5000 miles versus the 25 of the T-15 could be considered an innovation, and is certainly possible, but it only has tactical implications. From a strategic point of view: they had the same idea  years ago, for roughly the same reasons. Fifties era Soviet nuclear weapons delivery systems were not as reliable as American ones. In the 50s it was because Soviet bombers of the era were junk (mostly copies of the B-29). If they’re building this now, it’s because they’re worried about US missile defense.


Various analysts have been speculating that the thing is wrapped in cobalt or something to make it more dirty, because the rooskie power point talks about area denial. While it’s entirely possible, these dopes posing as analysts have some weird ideas about what a nuclear weapon is, and what it does. Nobody seems to have noticed that there’s a nuclear reactor pushing the thing around; predumably one using liquid metal coolants like the Alfa class submarines. I’m pretty sure lighting off a nuke next to a nuclear reactor will make some nasty and long lived fallout. At 1 megaton, just the bomb casing and tamper makes a few hundred pounds of nasty long lived radioactive stuff. The physics package the Russians would  likely use (SS-18 Mod-6 rated at 20Mt, recently retired from deployment atop SS-18 satan missiles) is a fission-fusion-fission bomb, and inherently quite “dirty” since most of the energy is released from U-238. Worse still:  blowing up a 1-100 megaton device in coastal mud will  make lots of nasty fallout.  Sodium-24 (from the salt in the water) is deadly. Half life is around 15 hours, meaning it would be clear in a few days, but being around it for the time it is active …. Then there is sodium-22, which has a half life of two and a half years; nukes in the water make less of this than sodium-24, but, well, go look it up. There is all kinds of other stuff in soil and muck which makes for unpleasant fallout. There’s an interesting book (particularly the 1964 edition) called “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons” available on archive. Chapter 9 shows some of the fallout patterns you can expect from blowing something like this up. Or, you could use this calculator thing;  a 1Mt device makes a lethal fallout cloud over thousands of square kilometers.



The twittering pustules who pass for our foreign policy elite are horrified, just horrified that the rooskies would spook us with such a device.  As if this were somehow a morally inferior form of megadeath to lobbing a couple thousand half megaton nuclear missile warheads at your least favorite country. Apparently this is how civilized countries who do not possess enemies with a plurality of coastal cities exterminate their foes. I don’t understand such people. Nuclear war is bad in general, m’kay? Mass slaughter with a nuclear torpedo is not morally inferior to mass slaughter with an ICBM. More to the point, getting along with Russians is easy and vodka is cheaper and more effective than ABM (and doomsday torpedo) defenses. If we hired actual diplomats and people who study history, instead of narcissistic toadies and sinister neocon apparatchiks to labor in our foreign services … maybe the Russians wouldn’t troll us with giant nuke torpedoes.

Doomsday engineering is often stranger than any science fiction. The things they built back in the cold war were weird.  While the US never admitted to building any 100 megaton land torpedoes (probably because Russia doesn’t have as many important coastal cities as the US does), we certainly worked on some completely bonkers nuclear objects.


Imagine  a locomotive sized cruise missile, powered by a nuclear ramjet, cruising at mach-3 at tree level. The cruise missile  showers the landscape with two dozen hydrogen bombs of the megaton class, or one big one in the 20 megaton class. When it is finished its job of raining electric death mushrooms all over the enemy, it cruises around farting deadly radioactive dust and flattening cities with the sheer power of the sonic boom… for months. In principle, such a device can go on practically forever. If I were to use such a contraption as a plot device, you’d probably think it was far fetched. Such a thing was almost built by the Vought corporation 50 years ago. Click on the link. The Vought corporation thought it was cool enough to brag about it on their website (please don’t take it down guys; anyway if you do, I’ll put it back up).


65,000 lbs, 80 feet long, with the terrifying code name, SLAM (Supersonic, Low Altitude Missile), or … “project Pluto.” This thing was perilously close to being built. They tested the engines at full scale and full power at Jackass Flats, and the guidance system was good enough they used essentially the same thing in the Tomahawk cruise missile. The problem wasn’t technical  … but how to test it? The fact that it was an enormous nuclear ramjet made it inherently rather dangerous. Someone suggested flight testing it on a tether in the desert. That would have been quite a tether to hold a mach 3 locomotive in place. Fortunately, we had rocket scientists who built ICBMs that worked. Of course, having an ICBM class booster would have been necessary to make the thing work in the first place (nuclear ramjets don’t start working until they’re moving at a decent velocity), which makes you wonder why they ever thought this was a good idea. Probably because people who dream these things up are barking looneys. Not that I wouldn’t have worked on this project, given the chance.


The ceramic matrix for the reactor was actually made by the  Coors Porcelain company. Yes, the same company that makes shitty  beer has been (and continues to be) an innovator in ceramics; and this originated from the founder’s needing good materials for beer bottles and inventing beer cans. According to Jalopnik, they used exhaust header paint ordered from hot rod magazine to protect some of the electronic components. Apparently when they lit the reactor off at full power for the first time, they got so shitfaced, the project director (Merkle; yes, nano-dude’s father) had vitamin B shots issued to the celebrants the following day. Yes, I would have worked on project SLAM: as far as I can tell, it was the most epic redneck project ever funded by the US government. Not that we should have built such a thing, but holy radioactive doomsday smoke, Batman, it would have been a fun job for a few years.

I wouldn’t blame the Russians if they wanted to build a giant nuclear  torpedo-codpiece when the US sends Russiophobic dipshits like Michael McFaul to represent us in  Russia (look at his twitter feed; it is completely bonkers). I certainly hope they don’t build such a thing. It would also be nice if the US would stop screwing around with crap like that as well. Pretty sure it’s a giant troll, but the T-15 and Project Pluto were not.

Interesting pdf on Project Pluto:


Edit add:fascinating Russian wikipedia page MichaelMoser123 posted to hacker news:



17 Responses

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  1. BRIAN said, on December 31, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Great, spooky stuff!

  2. satanforce said, on December 31, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    It is highly unlikely that any current democratic nation will go to war with a near-peer competitor for the next 10 or so years. Even in the case of a nuclear war, doesn’t Russia have a “No First Strike” policy? I too have to wonder about these American warmongers at times. But aside from your poor taste in Cold War aesthetics (Swing-Wings beat Century Series, Satan beats Titan rockets, Traux Sea Dragon pwns all rockets ) I feel that your posts leave out a necessary connection among this era’s chronocentrism, big science fail, technological stagnation and technomysticism (nanomachines and Singularity anyone ?) I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but its definitely more than just scienticism.

    • Scott Locklin said, on December 31, 2015 at 8:43 pm

      I’m hoping nuclear war is off the table, but our foreign service doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in this. I suspect we could have got very close indeed had the US a military solution to the Crimea crisis. Syria is pretty dicey as well.

      Dang, Traux Sea Dragon is insane; I was somehow unaware of this!
      I more or less agree that Satan is more interesting than Titan. We’ll have to disagree on the aesthetics of swing wings versus crazy half-functioning century series airframes (the Soviet equivalents of century series are also quite nice to look at).
      I certainly touch on some of those other issues in other blogs (nano-shite, tech stagnation and so on), though I try not to be a one-trick pony. I claim primacy over Thiel and Cowen in being a skeptic about modern scientific and technological progress.

      Also, Maserati FTW.

      • satanforce said, on January 2, 2016 at 5:45 pm

        No. No nuclear war. No conventional war either. What appears to be the case is a (rather silly) propaganda war, proxy-based conventional war, and , most importantly, economic warfare the likes of which the world has never seen. The main jump-off seems to be the use of Ukraine to both default on loans to Russia, and to destroy the eastern Donbass industrial region. Of course, we now see America getting ready to set up a RD-180 rocket engine factory. Based on your current industrial and project management skills, I wish you all good luck with that.Also, I believe that there will be some sort of “FencerGate”, that will be revealed down the line, as it concerns the purposeful nudging of Allied aggression against Russia’s moves.

  3. Darth said, on January 1, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Great write-up. Pity journalism has to be done by amateurs these days.

    Just spent time at Los Alamos this week. Nuclear weapons research is the crack of physicists.

  4. Rod Carvalho said, on January 1, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    Development of new weapons is not necessarily a rational process. Despite years of formal education and training, weapons designers can exhibit fanciful behavior. In the late 1950s, a weapons designer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory sold a program to the United States Atomic Energy Commission to develop a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed rocket. The project, code-named Pluto, was funded with millions of dollars and assigned a huge proving area at the Nevada Test Site. This weapon system had one great failing: the exhaust from the nuclear rocket engine was highly radioactive. Had the rocket ever been flight tested, it would have spewed radioactive debris over the course of its flight path. Worse, however, was what would happen when the rocket crashed — as it must at the end of a flight. The radioactive engines would disintegrate and contaminate a wide area around the crash site.


    Roger A. Meade, Total Quality Management and Nuclear Weapons, LANL, November 1993.

    • mpatton said, on January 1, 2016 at 11:31 pm

      I’m fascinated that the scenario described in the 1993 document is considered being among a universe of “fanciful” behavior.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 2, 2016 at 8:10 am

      Great find Rod; thanks for that, and happy New Year!

  5. […] Source link […]

  6. pete griffiths said, on January 3, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    This is great stuff. Many thanks !!

  7. osdpk said, on January 3, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    The description of the endlessly flying nuclear ramjet kind of reminds me of a 1958 sci-fi film called The Lost Missile. Typical 50s sci-fi in many ways, but worth checking out. Wonder if the screenwriters were somehow privy to Project Pluto.

  8. Toddy Cat said, on January 12, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    There was an element of lunacy in many Cold War projects, both U.S. and Soviet, but there was an element of genius as well, an element that seems to be missing from our countries today. Say what you will, our rivalry inspired some astonishing technological leaps, on both sides. I certainly don’t miss the Cold War, or (God knows) Communism, but, say what you will, in some cases, it brought the best in us and them. At least there were serious issues at stake, and serious people in charge on both sides, who were generally careful not to let things get out of hand. I wouldn’t put it past the current gang of idiots in DC and Moscow to actually blunder us all into WWIII.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 12, 2016 at 11:16 pm

      Maybe I’ve been drinking the Berkeley tap water too long, but I primarily blame the US for the present issues likely to lead us to war. If we had foreign policy realists like Stephen Walt; students of the George Kennan school, we wouldn’t be in our present pickle. Instead we have numskull neocons playing Risk games with the world, and “muscular shitlibs” advocating blowing up people for insufficient shitlibbery. I’m sure the Russians are a pack of evil loons as well, but I think they could deal with a State Department run by Walt and friends.

      True enough on the technical leaps. Things are pretty boring these days. While these new nukes are troubling, breakthroughs in genetic engineering are more scary.

      • Mike Patton said, on January 13, 2016 at 12:20 am

        I’m as far-removed from the Berkeley tap water as can be, and I share your views on this matter unreservedly.

  9. Toddy Cat said, on January 13, 2016 at 1:10 am

    Yes, back during the Cold War, I believe that despite a lot of moral ambiguity in specific situations, we were, on the whole, right, and the Commies were, on the whole, wrong. For today’s Cold War 2.0, I’d reverse that. The Russians, despite their usual ham handed public relations are pretty much pragmatic these days; the U.S. is the power that is drunk with ideology and trying to impose it’s utopian vision on the world. As you put it, scary stuff.

  10. satanforce said, on January 27, 2016 at 8:01 am

    Now I remember where I had originally read about that nuclear torpedo idea, page 147 of “A Failed Empire: The
    Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev” by Vladislav M. Zubok

    The test of the super bomb in October 1961 generated other wild-eyed projects. Andrei Sakharov, future recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, suggested that a similar device might be launched in large torpedo from a submarine. Later, in 1962, academician Mikhail Lavrentiev wrote a memorandum to Khrushchev proposing the use of a 100-megaton device to generate an artificial and huge wave, similar to an earthquake-generated tsunami, along the North American coastline. In case of a war with the United States, Lavrentiev concluded, this could inflict irreparable damage on the enemy. After a series of tests, Soviet scientists found that the continental shelf would protect New York City and other U.S. cities from such a super surf. The extraordinary project was dropped.∫

    The original source is:

    Sakharov, Vospominaniia, 294; Adamsky and Smirnov, ‘‘Moralnaia otvetstvennost
    uchenikh i politicheskikh liderov v iadernuiu epokhu,’’ 335–37.

    • Scott Locklin said, on February 2, 2016 at 8:55 pm

      Thanks for this. There are pieces in Sakharov’s various biographies on the subject. This tells a somewhat different story than Sakharov did. Either way, Putin’s nuclear torpedo isn’t a new idea; just an old one brought up to date.

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